07 September 2017

Notes on ‘Blackbird’

David Harrower’s Blackbird takes us right smack in the middle of harsh reality: the office pantry. Suspended fluorescent tubes illuminate a small room, which centerpiece is a long plastic table. Cardboard boxes everywhere. No porcelain, only paper cups. In one corner, trash has managed to spill from a tall bin. All these add up to a hyperreal set that is eerie yet captivating.

Enter a young woman and an older man, dressed like everybody else in the audience — in boring ready-to-wear, maybe soiled by earlier fits of clumsiness or by fresh transgressions. The difference is that our mess are hidden in theater dark, while theirs are exposed by light.

Una and Ray engaged in a sexual affair when the former was 12 and the latter was 40. The relationship lasted for three months and its end meant jail time for the gentleman. Fifteen years later, Una stumbles upon a photo of a smiling Ray in a magazine, compelling her to track him down. Now they meet again as Una finds Ray in his workplace, living a new life complete with a new name.

Bart Guingona and Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante are Ray and Una in The Necessary Theatre's production of Blackbird by David Harrower.

Once the initial outburst subsides, you sense a tender pull between them. And it’s not impulsiveness but rather self-control that causes the pair to entertain any residual desire that they might have for each other: the longer they are stuck together, the greater the possibility to see eye to eye and kindle an old fire. An unlocked pantry has never felt so dangerous.

Blackbird’s plotting can sometimes deceive you into thinking that you know where things are heading — partly a result of the playwright’s ability to draw believable characters. Harrower didn’t leave room for the audience to question either protagonist’s motivations. And when you think that you’ve predicted their actions, the play makes an unexpected turn. These twists are never for shock value, and the ambiguities are never forced.

The Necessary Theatre stages this Olivier-winning two-hander, its short run closing out on Sunday (the 10th) at the Carlos P Romulo Auditorium in Makati. The production, directed by Topper Fabregas, features Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante as Una and Bart Guingona as Ray.

Fabregas’ direction is thoughtful, allowing the audience to empathize with both Una and Ray — with both their past and present selves. The play’s overall tone is compassionate as well. It succeeds in refusing to be moralistic without condoning unlawful behavior.

If there’s something missing, it’s somewhere in the acting department. I struggle to connect with the leads on a visceral level. In a crucial, kilometric monologue, for example, Bradshaw falls a little flat. I hang on to her every word because she’s revealing Una’s backstory, though I wish that it’s also because of an emotional grip.

The beauty of Blackbird lies not in its complexity but in its capacity to unload a myriad of complex thoughts and feelings through simple, almost straightforward storytelling. It is smart as it is vulnerable. This production of the play, however, seems to focus on getting its tone right, and somehow overlooks the drama. TNT may have captured Blackbird’s mind; I’m not sure if it has fully captured its troubled heart.

Top Shelf